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James McKissack - Cinema Architect
by Tom Widdows

0. Introduction
1. Early Works
2. The First Cinemas
3. The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s
4. Art Deco and Jazz Moderne
5. Streamlining in the latter 1930s
6. New Design Directions: the Aldwych and Cosmo
7. Conclusion

Kingsway, Glasgow. 1929.

The Search for Style: Cinemas of the 1920s [Part 1]

While the British had been fighting the First World War, the Americans had been perfecting the art of making movies. Hollywood now had the biggest stars, the most exciting stories and seemingly limitless finance and expertise. To show off their latest epics, the major studios built chains of luxury cinemas throughout America and beyond. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then considered the most glamorous studio, was able to boast ‘More Stars Than Are In The Universe’ and proved its status with palatial architecture. B. Marcus Priteca, a Glaswegian who emigrated to the United States, designed some of its most innovative West Coast movie theatres – such as the San Francisco Pantages (1911) and the Seattle Coliseum (1916). Priteca went on to design a series of opulent theatres for the Pantages circuit, culminating with the stunning Hollywood Pantages (1930).

Thomas Lamb, another Scots émigré from Dundee, became MGM’s chief architect, producing well over a hundred movie palaces, usually in flamboyant French baroque style, all over the USA. In London, he designed MGM’s showcase Empire in Leicester Square, which opened in November 1928 on the site of an old music hall. Not surprisingly, British architects who became involved in cinema design in the latter 1920s copied American precedents. Some architects even visited there to study the latest examples.

In Scotland, John Fairweather was to design the largest new picture palaces – each one obviously influenced by American practice. After his earlier visits to New York, McKissack would have been very aware of the kind of glamorous imagery associated with the Hollywood scene, skyscrapers and ocean liners (some of which were, after all, built on the Clyde).

During the war, the cinema had become well established as a favourite entertainment for many urban Scots. Thus, cinema buildings, both entirely new and converted from existing premises, were established throughout the country. No cinemas were built during the war as materials and effort were expended on achieving victory, rather than on satisfying the increasing market for entertainment – indeed all so-called ‘luxury buildings’ were banned until 1921.
The First World War proved difficult for the cinema and many existing cinemas were forced to close. A shortage of staff and musicians (due to conscription) and similarly a short supply of new films (due to the Atlantic Blockade) are obvious reasons. A third was the introduction of an Amusement Tax in May 1916   – no doubt to raise money for the War Effort – meant that cheaper tickets disappeared.

Even so, McKissack did design The Picture House in Cowdenbeath, which was completed in 1919; probably because coal was vital to the success of the war effort and thus construction of entertainment facilities for miners’ welfare may have been acceptable in that context. Cowdenbeath was, of course, at the heart of the Fife Coal Field.
Not surprisingly, this cinema was something of an ‘austerity’ design, it being a rather pedestrian hall of brick over steel frames, clad externally in harling and with rusticated cement stucco on its façade.

Within, it had a balcony with the small entrance hall below, whilst the auditorium was largely unadorned, except for the proscenium arch which had egg and dart mouldings, and fibrous pilasters on the sidewalls, expressing the positioning of the main structural members. The ceiling was barrel-vaulted, being formed of plasterboard attached to the inside of the roof trusses – common practice in cinema outfitting at that time.

La Scala in Hamilton, which opened in 1921, was rather more invigorating than The Picture House in Cowdenbeath. Indeed, in some ways, it looked back to Edwardian design practice, albeit on a more substantial scale. Its façade, for instance, was capped on either side by bell towers, similar to those on the pre-war Silver Cinema in Edinburgh. Furthermore, the entrance doors were flanked by cast iron columns identical to the ones found at La Scala in Glasgow. Otherwise, the entrance portico was finished in blocks of moulded white faience – ideal in grimy industrial conditions - and the remainder of the steel-framed structure was clad in red facing brick. It looked prosperous and even had a certain civic dignity.

The interior of this cinema reflected the long and relatively narrow fue  upon which it was built. It only had a very shallow entrance hall with stairs on either side to the balcony. This faced the screen squarely (there was no need for a curve to improve the sightlines due to the great depth of the auditorium relative to its

Decoratively, it was largely unadorned, save for pilasters on the sidewalls and other details similar to Cowdenbeath. Once again, expenditure was focused on the proscenium arch and this one had a plaster cartouche, surrounded by scrolls and foliage.

Thereafter, cinema building again slumped for a few years. One probable cause was the increasing popularity of another new entertainment – radio - which reduced cinema attendance. Nevertheless, a number of existing cinemas in prominent locations were very successful and some were enlarged to maximise their potential.

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